Special editions are usually reserved for DVDs and the occasional iPod, so for a laptop to be labeled as such, it must be pretty special indeed. Alienware has added the Special Edition designation to its Area-51 m5790 desktop replacement, but what's so special about it? You can now order the m5790 with an overclocked Core 2 Duo processor, boosting its frequency to 2.66GHz. That brings the price up to a whopping $4,024, which also includes a Blu-ray optical drive. (Nonoverclocked configurations start at $1,299.) There's no doubt the m5790 Special Edition is a feature-packed, powerful laptop but--lacking bleeding-edge performance--whether it's worth that much is strictly between you and your accountant. If the overclocked CPU isn't a must, we like corporate cousin Dell's XPS M1710 as a go-to 17-inch gaming rig.
Measuring 16 inches wide, 11.5 inches deep, and 1.7 inches high, the Area-51 m5790 sits firmly in the desktop replacement category of laptops: way too big move around more than occasionally and definitely not suited for a daily commute or airplane travel. The system weighs 8.8 pounds (10.7 pounds with the AC adapter), which is near the upper end of laptops we've seen. Make no mistake, this thing is heavy.
The company's signature alien head motif is occasionally tweaked and updated, but it still seems dated compared to some of the slick industrial designs we've seen lately from companies like Apple (MacBook Pro) and Toshiba (Portege R400). The illuminated alien head on the back of the lid is an acquired taste, and the overly glossy silver finish makes the unit look somewhat cheap (or at least not like a $4,000 laptop).
The 17-inch LCD display offers a 1,920x1,200 native resolution, which is higher than most 19-inch desktop LCD monitors. It makes for a massive amount of screen real estate, but Web surfers may find online text a little hard to read. Still, for gaming and watching movies, it's a great display.
The keyboard is massive as well, and includes a full, separate number pad. We love having a number pad, but if you're a touch typist used to smaller laptops, you'll likely find yourself consistently missing the Enter and arrow keys, which are traditionally on the far right side of the laptop, but are here set in several inches from the right edge.
The touch pad has a separate scroll bar, just to the right of the main pad--a nice touch that made for easy Web page navigating. There's also a touch pad on/off button, which allows for disabling the pad when typing or when using an external mouse. A small built-in microphone sits to the left of the touch pad, but we were surprised there's not a Webcam to go with it. Above the keyboard, four programmable buttons launch frequently used applications, although we had to hunt around for the volume control wheel (it's on the left side of the chassis).
The system features a standard set of connections, including four USB 2.0 jacks, a mini FireWire jack, an Express Card slot, a media card reader, and DVI and S-Video outputs for hooking up an external monitor. The DVI output is especially nice, considering the built-in Blu-ray drive. Networking connections include a modem and Gigabit Ethernet jacks, and integrated 802.11a/b/g wireless (with an on/off switch). We would have liked to see Bluetooth as an option, but Alienware will throw in a USB Bluetooth adapter for $30.
Our Area-51 m5790 Special Edition review unit used Windows Vista Ultimate Edition and came with an Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 CPU, overclocked to 2.66GHz (from the stock 2.33GHz), a healthy 2GB of RAM, ATI Mobility Radeon x1900 graphics, two 7,200rpm 100GB hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration, and a Blu-ray optical drive, which alone accounts for $600 of the system's $4,000-plus price. The basic configuration starts at $1,299 and includes an Intel Core 2 Duo T5500 CPU, 1GB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive, and a plain old CD-RW/DVD combo drive. Decent enough specs for casual users, but not suited for a gaming system.
Despite the overclocked CPU, the Area-51 m5790 Special Edition was more average than special on CNET Labs' Multimedia multitasking test, falling slightly behind two systems with nonoverclocked T7600 CPUs, the Lenovo ThinkPad T60P, and Dell's high-end gaming rig, the XPS M1710 (a Windows XP system we upgraded to Vista). That's disappointing, but it shows that even gaming experts such as Alienware haven't mastered the intricacies of building Windows Vista systems yet. To quote our recent Vista benchmarking feature (Windows Vista performance: What to expect), "It's entirely possible--even probable--that, as better driver updates become available over time, Vista performance will improve."
In gaming, the Area-51 m5790 Special Edition is a solid performer, but it's 256MB ATI Mobility Radeon x1900 can't compete with the newer 512MB Nvidia GeForce Go 7950GTX found in the XPS M1710. You'll still get very playable frame rates out of the Alienware, especially if you lay off high-end options such as antialiasing.
Desktop replacement laptops are not known for their battery life, and this one is no exception. The Area-51 m5790 Special Edition ran for 1 hour, 32 minutes on our DVD battery drain test, using the included eight-cell battery. That's not an unreasonable score for a system in this class, although the equally hefty Dell XPS M1710 managed to get 2 hours, 28 minutes from the same test. Just be prepared to bring your AC adapter along when you head down to the local coffee shop.
Alienware backs the system with a standard one-year warranty on parts and labor, including on-site service and 24-7 toll-free phone support. You can extend the warranty to up to three years for $300. Support options on Alienware's Web site include live chat, an extensive knowledge database, and a page of drivers. Our review system also included Alienware's Respawn recovery DVD, a $34 option.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)